Immigration in Spain


Immigrants have a hard time in this country. Those without documents have no protection from criminal exploitation and racist attacks and instead are expelled or simply served with an order of expulsion. Legal immigrants are at the mercy of a poorly functioning public administration and civil servants who have discretionary powers that they use against immigrants who get annoyed. And sometimes they themselves get annoyed just to avoid being clear.


Some people truly believe that if foreigners want to come here to work they should do so legally – that’s why we have immigration laws: so that they come in an orderly manner. If anyone wants to earn an honest living here no one is going to deny them that right.


Is this last statement true? In a word, no. It is practically impossible, even being aware of the law, for an immigrant to enter the country legally and start working the next day. Yet according to whichever minister or government immigration agency you deal with, that is how things work. Unfortunately, the reality of it is different, and despite whatever any government intermediary says, it would be hard to find a single legal immigrant who started working immediately upon arrival – and particularly so in sectors that supposedly require foreign labour: the building trade and agriculture, not to mention the domestic sector.


Once vested with legality, the worker must leave her country of origin with a valid contract of employment. Fine, so far. But what Spanish business is going to take on an immigrant they haven’t even seen? And what about those in the agricultural and building sectors? Would they hire such an immigrant for only a 3- or 4- month contract? Because the average length of contracts in these sectors isn’t for any longer. In any case, as the length of the first contract has to be a year, authorities don’t accept contract offers of any less than one year.


The pitfalls concealed within the law don’t end there. The law also states that as long as there is single Spanish worker anywhere in the country that can fill that vacancy, the contract must not be given to a foreign worker. The Administration would not hesitate in applying this legal principle even if a bricklayer who lives in Galicia has to work for three months on an Andalusian buiding site. Furthermore, the principle is ‘applied’ with such rigour that the authorities don’t even consult the National Institute of Employment and simply refuse to study the file that comes with the offer of a contract. This legal condition is known as the ‘national employment situation’ and has been a constant in Spanish immigration policy since the first ‘law for foreigners’ in 1985.


Without getting into the possible connivance of border functionaries or the mercantile appetites of transport companies, the point is that the smart business owner knows there is an unregulated labour market that consists of workers in a precarious legal situation, over which he can impose his own rules. It follows that it wouldn’t necessarily be the businesses most in need of labour that would go through all the trouble of offering work to a foreigner. If there are undocumented workers available why would these businesses undergo such a tedious process (which also imposes certain labour obligations on them) when they can impose their very own laws?


On the other hand, the legal employment of a foreign worker who is undocumented is practically impossible without an extraordinary normalization process. Such as those that appear mysteriously under highly precarious judicial and material conditions when the social situation threatens to explode. The new law has mechanisms that can, in theory, counter these ultimately intolerable pressures and force regulation. This is legalization through residency  (where the foreigner has lived here for 5 years without a criminal record or expulsion orders). But even this law imposes the same administrative problems: it is difficult to get documents such as police records from the country of origin, or to get a visa issued there that then has to be collected in person (if the immigrant doesn’t qualify for exemption from this), to pay costly official translations, and so on.


And if you’ve passed the stumbling block of assembling all your documents, you face the next part of the administrative obstacle course: waiting for the Administration to deal with your case.  Because the same laws that the Minister and other government representatives defend so fiercely when they are used for repression, seem to lack urgency when they are to be used for protecting the immigrant. Consequently, cases that should take three months can take many more, even one or two years. 


Immigrants trying to renew their permits have to go through the same ordeal. On many occasions the ‘fortunate’ owner of a second permit (of two years) has just a few months left on it by the time it gets into her wallet. The permit is valid from the day after the previous one expires, but it takes several months to process, and several weeks more for the worker to receive the card, so the time during which the worker can actually exercise her rights using the card is drastically reduced.  The law talks of ‘positive administrative silence’ during renewal, but during this period you would be much better off not trying to change jobs, borrow money or rent an apartment because any of these depend on the goodwill of the National Employment Institute bureaucrat to register your contract, or the bank director to give you a loan, or the landlord to rent you an apartment. And no civil servant is likely to go to the lengths of helping by acknowledging the existence of this ‘positive administrative silence’


We Spanish have some experience with the Administration and we know that the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly.  But no one outside of the world of immigration in Spain can imagine how the government handles this issue. It is no longer a question of the deficient bureaucracy that everyone is used to. At the end of the day, it is the government’s decision to add, keep, or take away resources to implement policy within the stipulated time period. Anyone close to these issues will see that the government is not adding but, rather frequently, removing resources and systematically ignoring every warning sign.  Delays are getting longer, and there has been an obvious lack of resources (offices, computers and personnel) for some years now.  There is only one possible explanation for these delays: the government must have some interest in keeping immigrants in a precarious legal situation.  What are its motivations?  Only the government would know. 


 The aid groups that are working to help immigrants are not advocating an ‘open door’ policy, which is what the government and its spokespersons are saying. And they are putting every group that criticizes government policy into the same boat. We would be satisfied if the law were more realistic and just on the one hand, and if it were applied with equal fervour whether it was against the immigrants’ interests or in their favour on the other.


Marga Vidal is a translator for Znet and a volunteer for Valencia Acoge, an organization dedicated to helping immigrants.

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